Friday, March 26, 2010

1980 Hugo, 1979 Nebula - THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke’s second Hugo and Nebula winning novel focuses on the building of a space elevator on the semi-fictional island-nation of Taprobane (a stand in for Clarke’s adopted home of Sri Lanka). The idea, for those unfamiliar with the concept of a space elevator, is that if you could string some sort of line between Earth and a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, you could avoid the high-energy costs of rockets and simply ship things into space with a quick elevator trip up the wire. It’s technically feasible with more advanced materials than we currently possess, but would be a monumental undertaking.

Clarke sets this massive engineering project in the 22nd century (the novel spans several decades from conception to near completion). Most of the novel follows engineer Vannevar Morgan and a diplomat living in Taprobane named Rajasinghe. The early novel deals with their attempts to negotiate for some prime mountaintop real estate with a Buddhist monastery; the later novel deals with a harrowing construction accident on the space elevator. Along the way, Clarke also makes time for historical scenes with a 5th century king who built a fine garden complex near the proposed construction site. There’s also a section on an alien probe that arrives in the solar system (somewhat Rama-like) in the 22nd century. In other words, the construction project is really just a canvas on which Clarke can throw cool engineering ideas, a fast-paced action sequence, and various thoughts on religion, alien intelligence, family, and history.

I’m a bit divided on whether this is a complete mess or just brilliantly eclectic. The main plot appears, disappears, and then reemerges before shifting into something completely different. Clarke juggles several subplots, and drops more than a few. And, not every idea here feels fully-developed. For instance, Clarke throws out a theory that only mammals would develop religion due to their family structure. He never entirely explains this hypothesis, but from what I gathered, it seemed far too simplistic, both biologically and psychologically.

Still, it hardly seems to matter when the proceedings manage to remain consistently fun and thought-provoking at a level that few science fiction novels can match. Though not as good as Rendevous with Rama, this was one of my favorite novels so far. I’m sorry that there are no more Clarke novels on the agenda.

Grade: A-

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